Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley argues that the Islamist threat to western societies is a secondary battlefield to the fight over who speaks for Islam.

It matters to the West who wins, he says, because “the Muslim world is riven by doctrinal differences, with global consequences for Muslims and non-Muslims alike".

The Citizen ran an edited version of this column.

By Brian Lee Crowley, Sept. 12, 2014

Who speaks for Islam?

You might think this is a question for that faith’s adherents to work out, and in normal times that would be the correct answer. But these are not normal times. Western politicians and editorialists, for example, seem quite content to make ex cathedra pronouncements about what “true” Islam is (usually characterised as “a religion of peace”) and those who “pervert” the religion for their own nefarious purposes (i.e. “terrorists”) such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Islam`s adherents always rightly point out that it is not hierarchical. There are no bishops. There is no one central authority figure with power to determine doctrine. There is no pope. There are major schisms within Islam, separating for instance Shi’ites, Sunnis, Sufis and Ismailis.  The tradition tends to be one of individual clerics and mosques establishing a following for their interpretation of the Koran, and local traditions. There is no one “Islam.”

The reason all this matters is that if we do not understand our adversary, the radical Islamist Jihadists, we will fail to take the correct steps to protect ourselves and defeat them. Wishful thinking is a poor defence against suicide bombers and battle-hardened guerillas.

What we must never lose sight of is that the Islamist threat to Western societies like Europe, Canada and the US is a secondary battlefield in what is chiefly a civil war for control of Islam. The “religion of peace” that our leaders so often invoke is in fact one faction in the battle for Islam’s soul. We are taking sides over how that religion is to be understood.

It is right for us to do so. Who wins matters. The modernisers within Islam, with whom we ally ourselves, are the ones who want their religion to make peace with modern concepts like secularism, democracy, minority rights, equality of the sexes, freedom of conscience and so forth. They can adduce compelling evidence of the compatibility of the Islamic canon with these ideas.

But the radicals are no less able to find justification within that canon for their cruel and revanchist practices. Islam was no religion of peace when it spread itself by the sword for centuries, the tide in Europe only being turned back at the gates of Vienna in the 17th century. Plenty of non-believers met grisly fates in the face of the onslaught of people motivated by a vision of a divine mandate to spread the truth to every land.

Both sides call down the blessings of Allah and his prophet Mohammed on their work and quote the Koran to their purpose.

It is not as if we in the West know nothing of such conflicts. The English Civil War pitted a purifying puritanical interpretation of Protestantism against those who believed in the divine authority of king and church. Many died and a king lost his head over differences regarding what the Christian religion enjoined its followers to do. Calling the faction you favoured “true Christians” and their opponents a perversion of the religion would have done nothing to help resolve the conflict because it would have misunderstood what the adversaries thought was at stake.

Islam is not the first religion to be torn between embracing new concepts as the way forward versus a return to first principles.

That civil war doesn’t only rage far away. It is here. Work for my institute several years ago found thatMuslim public opinion strongly favoured the inclusive liberal values of our country. Yet while 65 percent of Canadian Muslims repudiated Al-Qaeda, for example, 35 percent did not. The Toronto Star professed to find no common denominator linking the Toronto 18 terrorism suspects, despite the fact that they were all Muslims and many attended the same mosque.

Nothing in our too-delicate Western sensibilities can define away the reality that the Muslim world is riven by doctrinal differences, with global consequences for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.